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Combatting PTSD Alleviates Alcohol & Drug Addiction

Desensitizing addiction memories known as “triggers” prevents relapse.At the Douglas Hospital in Montreal, Quebec in association with research teams at Harvard and McGill Universities, scientists—leading trauma researcher, Dr. Alain Brunet, and Michelle Lonergan, of Hopital du Sacre-Coeur de Montreal—are preparing to launch a pilot project to treat addiction by first treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The connection between drug and alcohol addiction and PTSD? The memories.

Ranked as one of the “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2008” by Quebec Science magazine, the ground-breaking new therapy centres on cravings and memories.  As Dr. Brunet explains, we suffer from addiction “because of cravings,” which are, he suggests, “form[s] of emotional memory.”  Very fond, but very potent, a thing which is remembered as a reminder of drug use “triggers…cravings…,” making the person want to use again.

This is the premise that informs what Brunet identifies as the memory consolidation theory:

1) A potent memory is recalled when the original information is “packed away” or “re-consolidated” in the individual’s head. 

2) In the process, a window of time has the memory at its most vulnerable or most “malleable” state. A time frame when Brunet and his team are stepping in to manipulate the memory or memories by way of “dampening.” 

PTSD, a disorder first identified during the war(s) as shell shock, affects a range of individuals outside of war contexts. People who have experienced or witnessed trauma and who have emotional memories packed away can experience this disorder as well. These emotional memories recur, re-triggering the feelings experienced at the time of the initial trauma. For the person addicted to a substance, it is often accompanied by or causes the intense cravings all over again.

However, where authorities and experts have found ways to minimize the pain of PTSD and the memories, so have Brunet and colleagues discovered what they believe is a way to “dampen” the charge or “turn down” the volume or intensity of addiction triggers that are emboldened by such emotional memories.  

Now recruiting test participants for the pilot project, Brunet and colleagues have begun the process of treating PTSD. Using an internationally acclaimed therapeutic process of test subjects, they have them recount by writing down a traumatic memory in a sentence or two. Subjects receiving a set dosage of propranolol (a blood pressure drug which has been found to “dampen” or “de-intensify” the activity of memories for the user), then hold up and read out loud what they have written five times. They decided upon five times because it was enough times that allowed the participant to bring the memory back to light.

The traumatic memory is brought to the forefront of the subject’s consciousness and it is in this very window of time, when the memory is most vulnerable to manipulation. As the subject is on propranolol, that memory gets “deadened.” This appears to be the case for several of the subjects who have undergone the PTSD treatment thus far. People have experienced what they report as marked change in the potency of the traumatic memory or memories.

In Brunet and team’s project, which focuses on addiction cravings, there is a relationship between the cravings and the powerful anxiety and panic of PTSD suffers whose brains, Brunet points out, are set to hold on stubbornly to addictive cravings as anxiety relievers. However, by the conscious efforts taken to muffle the cravings in similar ways to the subjects who earlier on deflated PTSD emotional memories of trauma, so can the addictive cravings be lessened. The only difference is that the addicted personality will instead write down a central memory (good or bad) that is the primary memory found to be triggering the act of using to satisfy the craving.

The concerns persist of course—with people inquiring about the loss of memory, or about the damaging of “good” memories. However, Dr. Brunet advises that memories do not disappear. Rather, their potency is diminished. In his experience, from the very start of working on PTSD since 2004, never has anyone said that they had forgotten something that was important. For the traumatized individuals, taking the negative emotions out of PTSD that feeds addiction, while not the cure-all, can be part of the answer in healing addiction and even more so, relapse. While this helps, counselling and therapy are always a vital part of recovery. The fact that damaging memories can take control of someone, dampening those past experiences can have a healthy impact.

Catherine Cosgrove, an addiction specialist and psychotherapist, is positive about this approach and its effectiveness. Running the Sobriety Home addiction treatment centre, she remains positive that there is a better way to lessen the rate of relapses among addicts.

She points out that it is those traumatic experiences that makes an addict different from a non-addict and that those who use have some sort of PTSD whether it is recognized or not.

In the driver’s seat of addiction lies PTSD and this leads them to anxiety. They then seek drugs to ease those pains. Cosgrove feels that the best results would be found with dampening the source of the addicts’ PTSD in combination with decreasing the results of addiction and those memories that create cravings for drugs. Between the two, this can be very beneficial to addiction recovery.

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